Temporal Proximity in Texas Dram Shop Cases
When a bar's unlawful alcohol service ends up leading to an accident where someone is injured, the Texas Dram Shop Act permits victims to hold the bar liable for injuries that arise from the bar's over-service through what's known as a dram shop claim. In these cases, the difference between a victim receiving compensation and a bar escaping liability is the success or failure of a defense based on temporal proximity.
Arguments based on temporal proximity hinge on the amount of time that passes between when a drunk patron leaves a bar and when the accident occurs that resulted in injuries or death. Because alcohol served by the provider being sued has to have directly contributed to the crash in question, an excessive gap in time between the drunk driver leaving that provider and the crash is an issue, as it makes it possible for the bar to plausibly argue that alcohol procured somewhere else actually caused the driver's intoxication when the wreck occurred.
For instance, if a drunk driver leaves the bar, hits another vehicle pulling out of the parking lot and kills the other driver, it is doubtful that the defendant could successfully mount a temporal proximity defense in the case, since the accident happened so soon after the patron left the bar. In the opposite extreme, if an accident occurred 12 hours after the patron left the bar, even if they were still intoxicated, most likely it would be impossible for their last drink to have occurred at the bar and therefore a temporal proximity arguments would be much more likely to succeed.
Naturally, the vast majority of cases fall somewhere between those two extremes. This means that defendants will almost certainly question the temporal proximity of the accident to when the patron left the bar or restaurant. Quite simply, the more time that elapses between when an obviously intoxicated patron leaves an establishment and when they get into an accident, the more opportunity that person had to consume alcohol somewhere other than at the establishment who is being sued.
Temporal proximity can greatly complicate a dram shop case. Furthermore, dram shop cases aren't something that all firms have experience successfully handling. The attorneys at Grossman Law Offices have won hundreds of alcohol related cases, and we'd like to share some of the things we've learned with you. There are many factors that impact how a dram shop case will play out, and the role temporal proximity arguments plays in them.
In this article, Texas-based dram shop attorney Michael Grossman explains how temporal proximity could affect your case.
Questions answered on this page:
- What is Temporal Proximity?
- How do temporal proximity arguments affect dram shop cases?
- How can Grossman Law Offices help with my Texas dram shop case?
What is Temporal Proximity and How Does it Work?
In Texas dram shop cases temporal proximity is the time between when the driver left the bar and when the driver was involved in an accident. This element is something that attorneys have to be mindful of when building a case. To put it simply, the shorter the amount of time that has passed between the driver leaving the bar and when the accident occurred, the stronger the claim is against the bar.
This is not to suggest that cases, which occur hours after someone has left a bar are not viable cases, just that they present more investigative challenges and offer more opportunity for defense attorneys to cast doubt an injury victim's case in the event that the case makes it to trial.
Temporal proximity is important because in every Texas dram shop case, it is on the victim (the plaintiff) to prove three elements. Those are:
- An establishment served an obviously intoxicated person.
- That intoxication was the proximate cause of an accident.
- The accident, caused by intoxication, resulted in injuries.
Arguments based around temporal proximity usually cast doubt on the second element, since they dispute that the accident was proximately caused by the unlawful alcohol service. In these instances a bar or restaurant is basically admitting that they served an obviously intoxicated person, but disputing that this actually was what caused the accident. It should be noted, in some instances, temporal proximity can be used to dispute the first element of a Texas dram shop case, that the bar served an obviously intoxicated person.
Defendants can use temporal proximity arguments in three general ways. The first way they dispute causality via temporal proximity is to suggest that an accident occurred so long after a patron left the establishment that it is unlikely the establishment was the last person to serve them alcohol. Texas dram shop law only permits the last establishment to over-serve an obviously intoxicated person to be held accountable. In essence, this is the bar or restaurant saying, "Sure we broke the law, but someone else broke it after us, so they're responsible, not us."
While not usually as strong as the the first use of a temporal proximity argument, another way it can be employed is to suggest that enough time passed between when someone left an establishment and when they caused an accident, that some other, non-alcohol related, cause was the reason for the accident. While a bit more nebulous than the suggestion that a drunk driver had time to drink more somewhere else, if it is coupled with a half-way decent theory about an alternate cause for the accident, this strategy can be a formidable obstacle in a Texas dram shop case.
A third way that temporal proximity can be used is when an accident occurs a decent period of time after the patron left the bar, it is easier for the bar to argue that their staff did not serve an obviously intoxicated person, because the signs of intoxication were not showing until after the patron had left the establishment. Unlike the other two uses of this argument, this one attacks the first element of a dram shop case, that the bar served an obviously intoxicated person. While this argument is usually pretty easy to rebut if their are records of how many drinks a patron was served or witnesses in the bar. Absent that evidence, it becomes a more powerful argument.
How Does Temporal Proximity Impact a Case?
Timing plays an important role in your claim. For example, let's say a driver leaves a bar in an intoxicated state and then sleeps in their car for the next few hours. After they wake up, they cause an accident. This would bolster the argument that enough time passed between the service of the alcohol and the accident that it's possible that some other intervening cause may be the more likely proximate cause of the accident.
Another scenario could be that the driver may have gone to another bar or liquor store and purchased alcohol there. If this scenario occurs, then the bar involved in the case would not be liable for the claim. Remember, it is the aim of the defense attorney to poke holes in your argument. This is why temporal proximity is so important.
By creating this sense of ambiguity or doubt, the defense can chip away at the certainty that the bar is liable, which could lead to a reduction in how much fault is placed on the bar. This would ultimately help the bar out since they wouldn't have to pay out as much to the plaintiff, if they end up having to pay anything at all.
Of course, temporal proximity cuts both ways. When we can use temporal proximity evidence to illustrate that the intoxicated driver left the bar and very soon thereafter was involved in an accident, we can easily argue that the bar's over-service is a direct cause of the accident. So, don't get the impression that this element is only used to hinder the claim of the plaintiff. That's simply not the case because it can also serve to increase the blame a jury places on a bar.
Lastly, when we can show that an accident occurred soon after leaving an establishment, there's an implication that the driver's blood alcohol content (BAC) both at the bar and at the accident scene are nearly identical. This means that any signs or symptoms of obvious intoxication that were seen by witnesses or the police at the time of the accident would also have been visible by the bar service staff.
The way that experienced dram shop attorneys use temporal proximity to their advantage is by filling in the timeline. If a defendant wants to argue, "Hey, a lot of time passed between when the patron left they bar and when they were in a drunk driving accident," the way to turn that argument around is by gathering evidence that removes the ambiguity of what happened and when it happened. If the movements of the drunk driver can be tracked, through a combination of witnesses, cell phone records, and the engine control module (ECM), then the doubt that the defense is trying to raise with a temporal proximity argument is overcome by the certainty of the evidence.
Even when such evidence is not available, it means that an experienced dram shop attorney is still able to paint temporal proximity arguments for what they are in many cases, speculation. In many dram shop cases, the evidence shows that the drunk driver was drinking at a particular establishment before an accident. Temporal arguments, in many instances, attempt to draw the jury's attention away from the evidence in the case. Experienced attorneys do not let that happen, instead they keep the jury's attention focused on what the evidence actually says in a case.
How Can Grossman Law Offices Help?
The dram shop attorneys at Grossman Law Offices in Dallas, Texas have over 25 years handling cases in Texas. In that time, our attorneys have helped hundreds of Texans recover compensation from bars, restaurants, and other alcohol providers who unlawfully served an intoxicated person who later caused an accident. We know dram shop law backwards and forwards. Our attorneys are available to your 24/7 to answer whatever questions you might have regarding your claim. Call us today at (855) 326-0000 for a free consultation.
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